We're back from Georgia and I am proud to report that we still have all four children. Nobody got lost, nobody got hurt, and most importantly, nobody got abandoned by the side of the road because we just couldn't stand them anymore. And that is something that I'm proud of.
We've obviously traveled with our children before (otherwise, how would I be writing this from my home in Azerbaijan?), but this is the very first trip we've taken for pleasure that didn't involve seeing any family. And it's also the very first international travel we've done with the children. So even though we've flown across the world with all of the children, we've never gone on a trip with the express purpose of having fun. Which is a pretty tall order when you throw in two overnight train rides, two nights in a hotel, lots of Georgian food, and a major amount of walking around a city with not much to recommend it other than old buildings. Even the guidebook, under the heading "Tbilisi With Children," told us that it wasn't a good city for children.
Nevertheless, we still enjoyed ourselves. So take that Lonely Planet.
We started our adventure Saturday night downtown at the Baku train station waiting to board the 8:30 train to Tbilisi. Brandon and I had walked down to the station a week before to purchase the tickets which turned out to be a good thing as the train was sold out a few days before our trip. As Brandon asked his way to the correct window and then chatted with the lady in Russian and explained what he needed I thanked the heavens (for the hundredth time) that I was married to someone who had lived in a Russian-speaking country for two years. I imagine buying tickets would have been possible without Russian or Azeri, but it certainly would have been much more complicated.
Not wanting to park our car downtown for five days, we took a taxi down to the station and enjoyed the pleasant evening, having arrived too early to board. As we waited we saw friends coming down the platform and soon realized we were next door to them on the train. The children had a fun time running up and down the platform and wondering when the engine would come and if we would get left behind and which window would be ours and what would the train look like inside and how fast it would go and could we have snacks yet? I think they didn't really care where the train was going, just that they were going on a train.
The inside turned out to be very clean and recently renovated; we had a coupe with four beds, two down and two up that worked excellently as clubhouse and monkey-swinging tree and something to climb. Stored on the top two bunks were pillows and pallets to lay on top of the padded vinyl seat benches. After we had been on the train for an hour or so the attendant brought bags of linens to put on the pillow and pallet and we made all of the beds while the children negotiated who would be sharing with whom.
I had been wondering ever since we decided to try traveling with four children how getting all of them to sleep on a train with everyone in the same compartment would work out. When we put them to sleep at home, every night there are at least three requests for water, five bathroom trips, two fights to break up and seven injunctions (increasing in severity and decreasing in civility) to just go to sleep already. And that is without Joseph in the room.
But either the running had worn them out or the excitement of sleeping on a train that was moving or the late hour or perhaps the Benadryl helped, as everyone actually just went to sleep after they had been pajama-ed and tucked into bed. Joseph gave us a little trouble so Brandon pulled him up to the top bunk and wrestled him down to unconsciousness (in a loving, non-violent manner) in about ten minutes and returned him to the bed he shared down below with Sophia.
I've flown enough red-eye flights to know how to get sleep in uncomfortable places and had packed accordingly: earplugs, Unisom, and my own pillow. So that just left Brandon, who was a big boy and had the Kindle's warm LED glow to keep him company if he couldn't sleep.
The night wasn't exactly the best sleep I've ever gotten - the room was hot until someone turned the air conditioning on and I had to keep shifting to find a comfortable position - but it certainly wasn't the worst and I didn't hear a peep from the children all night long. Maybe Brandon did, but that's why I packed earplugs.
The next morning after dressing, waiting in line for the bathroom (we knew enough of traveling to bring our own TP, but I'm not complaining because the toilet wasn't a squat), and making our beds, we had breakfast. When I mentioned something about a dining car to Brandon, he just laughed, "Dining car?!? Don't you realize that this is a Soviet system? All you get on these trains is hot water for tea. Period." So I had packed accordingly and we had pumpkin muffins, slightly squashed bananas, and granola bars to start the day off with.
We finished before reaching the Azeri border where we stopped for about an hour for border control and then rode for about half an hour before getting to the Georgian border where we stopped for more passport flashing and stamping. By then we were getting close to Tbilisi and I made a vain attempt to get Joseph to sleep (and maybe catch a nap myself) which worked about fifteen minutes before we pulled in, around noon.
So in summary: train travel with kids is vastly better than air travel. You can sleep laying down, you can shut the door, nobody has to wear seat belts, everyone can look out the window, and your children can misbehave without any witnesses. Of course the train took longer (sixteen hours versus ninety minutes), but we spent over half of the trip sleeping. And not once did anyone ask me to take off my shoes, empty out the liquid in my bags, or send my children through a metal detector. The only line we had was at the bathroom. And it was cheaper - one hundred dollars to get everyone to Georgia.
Of course, the way back was a different story. But that's for next time.